It's San Francisco in 1957, and an American masterpiece is put on trial. Howl, the film, recounts this dark moment using three interwoven threads: the tumultuous life events that led a young Allen Ginsberg to find his true voice as an artist, society's reaction (the obscenity trial), and animation that echoes the poem's surreal style. All three coalesce in hybrid that dramatizes the birth of a counterculture. Written by
Sundance Film Festival
"Howl" for Carl Salomon. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...
[continues reading but unheard, credits roll]
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I'm surprised that this film worked as well as it did, and that it has been received as well as it has here. I read Howl about 5 years after Ginsberg wrote it, when I was in high school, and, like it or not, it became part of my thinking in the fifty years since then. Still in high school, I could quote passages from the poem at my friends, who would follow up with the next passage, etc. Boooring. But if you had told me that a film would be made about it, with a script constructed of trial transcripts and interviews in the public record, alternating with a recreation of Ginsberg's first public (paying-public; there was ONE previous reading of the full poem) reading of the poem, I wouldn't have expected much. And I would have been wrong. It's well-done and well-acted, and no excuses are made for anything about Ginsberg or his work. I was dismayed at first to see the poem interpreted into animation, but the filmmakers were savvy enough to produce the animation in the style of the times, i.e., 1955, when Disney's Fantasia was still the state of the art, and the animation in Howl could have come out of the Night on Bald Mountain section. In the end, it worked, I think, by keeping the viewer visually in the world of the poem itself, rather than in the biographical material about Ginsberg or the trial and the litigants. So if you want to watch a movie about a poem, and the poet and his friends, but mainly about the poem, this one does a pretty good job.
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